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Rising Sons
Mark Bechtel
April 23, 2001
with timely hitting and superb defense, the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Mets' Tsuyoshi Shinjo are boosting the stock of Asian players
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April 23, 2001

Rising Sons

with timely hitting and superb defense, the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Mets' Tsuyoshi Shinjo are boosting the stock of Asian players

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As for the lefthanded-hitting Suzuki, if there's a good way to pitch him, no one in Japan found it. If he can't turn on a pitch, he has an uncanny ability to go the other way with his inside-out swing. Furthermore, if he can get around on an inside pitch, he has surprising pop for a player listed at 5'9" and 160 pounds, as evidenced by the 10th-inning game-winning two-run homer he yanked out to right off reliever Jeff Zimmerman in the Mariners' 9-7 win over the Rangers on April 6.

In the spring of '99, when Suzuki spent a few days at Seattle's training camp, Ken Griffey Jr., a Mariner at the time, sized up Suzuki and proclaimed, "He's got no booty." Two years and an additional 15 pounds of muscle later, Suzuki is still relatively booty-less, prompting some to wonder how he'll hold up under the rigors of a 162-game schedule with frequent long-distance road trips. (The Japanese season lasts 135 games, and no trip takes more than four hours.) Japanese players, however, are used to far more rigorous practice schedules, so much so that after his first workout this spring, Shinjo asked Valentine what time he should return for the evening workout. When Valentine told him major leaguers only practice once a day, Shinjo, who is 6'1" and weighs 185 pounds, worked out alone, swinging a bat in the parking lot of the team hotel under the starry Florida sky. "These guys will work so much less [in the States] that by season's end they'll think it's midseason," says Valentine. "There's no reason to think there will be any physical drain on Japanese players."

In fact the most draining aspect of life in the bigs might be dealing with the media circus their debuts have created. In Japan writers are never allowed in the clubhouse, and postgame "interviews" generally consist of giving a quote to a public relations person and having it distributed. In the States, though, Suzuki and Shinjo have been trailed by packs of Japanese reporters at least 60 strong. Suzuki has jokingly told the American writers who follow the team that the only thing he doesn't like about America is the Japanese media, but that statement might contain a kernel of truth. Suzuki doesn't face the media. Rather, he faces his locker, sitting in a chair and giving short answers to the questions journalists direct at the back of his head. (His refusal to look the media in the eye may not be a question only of manners; rumor has it that a Japanese publication has offered up to $2 million for a photo of him naked.)

Shinjo, on the other hand, seems to be basking in his newfound American fame. He is far more flamboyant than Suzuki. His nickname in Japan is Uchu-jin, or Spaceman. Speaking through his interpreter, he has been animated with the Japanese and the American media. After his homer in his first game at Shea, he reenacted the moment for reporters. As he mimed his batting stance, he said, "Kita!" which means "it came." Then he took an imaginary swing and said, "Haichatta!" which roughly means "it went."

"It was good that in Japan the media couldn't come into the clubhouse," Shinjo says, "but instead of that they'd follow me everywhere outside the ballpark. Here nobody chases me outside the ballpark. That's part of the reason I came to the U.S."

The main reason he came, though, was that he wanted to be a trailblazer. Had the idea of a Japanese hitter plying his trade in the U.S. not been novel, he says, he would have stayed home. Instead, he turned down Hanshin's offer of $12 million over five years to sign a one-year deal with the Mets for $400,000. "In other countries a player wants to come here because he can make so much money and the lifestyle is so much better," says Valentine. " Japan's not that way. I don't understand it, personally."

Because Shinjo's skills are more in line with the typical Japanese hitter's, he's the one his former colleagues view as a trial balloon. "I think Shinjo is more important because Ichiro is a big hero, a big star, like Mark McGwire or Ken Griffey," says Hasegawa, whose English is excellent. "Well, not a home run hitter, more like Rod Carew. But if Shinjo or I prove we can play, a lot of players will try to follow." While the Japanese wait and see how Shinjo fares, a few Pan-Pacific prospects are waiting in the wings. Among others, the Chicago Cubs have a 22-year-old Korean first baseman named Heep-Seop Choi who almost won the first base job after hitting a total of 25 homers in Class A and Double A last year. The Dodgers are touting 23-year-old Taiwanese outfielder Chin-Feng Chen, who hit 31 homers in A ball in 1999.

Meanwhile, the ones who have already arrived are making their mark. On April 11, Suzuki made a laserlike eighth-inning throw to nail Oakland's Terrence Long at third, a key play in Seattle's 3-0 win. Two nights later Shinjo went 3 for 3 in the Mets' 3-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. Later that evening in Anaheim, in the half-inning before the historic Hasegawa-Suzuki meeting, Suzuki stifled an eighth-inning rally by the Angels when he leaped against the wall to snare a Tim Salmon drive, then doubled Orlando Palmeiro off first. Half an inning after the showdown, Seattle's Sasaki gave up a homer to Garret Anderson, making a winner of his countryman. As Hasegawa made his way into the hallway outside the clubhouse to face the throng of Japanese reporters, which abandoned Suzuki for the night to mob him instead, Angels bullpen catcher Orlando Mercado perfectly captured the evening's essence, calling to him, "Viva Japan!"

Or as Shinjo might say, Kita.

It came.

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